Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  1

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Patricia M. Ellis  f-ellis@mail.vjc.edu  443.352.4034

KEYWORDS:  Interdisciplinary, Art, Business

 

Making Art Work

 

Patricia M. Ellis, Villa Julie College, MD

Amanda G. Hostalka, Villa Julie College, MD

Amanda (Mimi) Bory, Villa Julie College, MD

 

Ellis, JD, Professor of Legal Studies and Business, is director of accelerated undergraduate programs; Hostalka, MA, Associate Professor of Art, created the Visiting Artist Program; and Bory, a Business Communications undergraduate, works in the VJC president’s office.

 

Abstract

Connecting seemingly disparate ideas, art and business, in an interdisciplinary course, honor students define, research, and propose solutions using art as a catalyst for change and applying business principles to realize their art ideas. Students determine how their art will work as opposed to making the artwork itself.  Drawing on their content knowledge, teams creatively solve problems related to their various majors in their chosen fields of study.  

 

Introduction

What is art?  This time-honored philosophical question asked in countless traditional art appreciation and aesthetics curricula is elaborated upon in a new interdisciplinary course:  Harnessing the Power of Art.  The questions being asked by two professors, one Art and one Law and Business Professor, are not only What is art? but also What can art do?  What have artists accomplished through their art making?  What power do artists have to influence others?  How can that power be used for the betterment of society?

 

Designed as an interdisciplinary team-taught honors course to fit into the liberal arts core, this course is far from traditional.  To begin, the faculty members are from two completely different fields.  Many institutions of higher learning are developing such interdisciplinary courses,[1] although often they are closer together:  history/political science, math/science, philosophy/religion.  Additionally, the students are not all art majors; they are, e.g., future doctors, accountants or journalists.  Initially, students consider the question of what is art within some of the traditional views; however, students then expand their preconceived ideas about art.  Are art objects limited to paintings and sculpture?  Is a novel, a photograph, a video, a musical composition, or a performance a piece of art?  Can it be architecture, drama, opera, or a poster?  What about an advertisement?

 

Upon this foundation, ideas will build, going beyond the focus of the art objects and moving outward to consider the artist’s sphere of influence.  Students must consider the artist, not only as a lone practitioner, but also as a contributor in a community of artists, critics, historians, and curators.  The nature of this initial investigation, however, still maintains a certain distance between the student in the classroom and the art community.  Perhaps this would be a desirable outcome in a traditional art appreciation course where scholars and artists revel in the purity of art and the sacredness of its practice; however, this course seeks to bridge that distance by breaking down perceived barriers and making art more accessible.  Students are encouraged to expand their definitions of art and to discover the myriad ways in which art intersects their daily lives.  Through field trips and discussions with visiting artists working in varied genres and media, students come to understand not only the role art plays in the life of its maker, but also the potential for that individual experience to have great influence on others.  When faculty encourage students to identify how they, too, are influenced by art, the students will begin to develop a truer appreciation of its power.

 

This process leads to the second initial question:  What can art do?  Can art lead to a cure for cancer or help to alleviate the pain of treatment?  Can art inspire change or address social problems, such as childhood obesity, political corruption or low voter turnout? What have artists accomplished through their art-making in the past?  How did the AIDS quilt influence those who came into contact with it?  What about the Sistine chapel? Students explore modern and historic artistic examples that have been the impetus for great change in communities large and small, while seeking to identify their own creative interests and potential.

 

The Villa Julie College school motto, “For learning for living,” reminds faculty to help students improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills—emphasizing the importance of practical applications.  The breadth of their higher education comes of course from their liberal arts studies.  When students can identify their values, interests and capacities, they are better equipped to develop their own talents.  The combination of the breadth of the liberal arts and the depth of their major courses gives them the opportunity to develop their own career paths.  In the required course-long culminating interdisciplinary project, students apply what they have learned about the power of art to their chosen field of study and develop vital creative problem-solving and business skills in the process.  “If we can teach our students to recognize the complexity of human experience, then we are fulfilling the goal of helping them toward a liberal education.”[2]

 

We know that many disciplines are no longer specific and focused areas of study existing in a vacuum, but rather, fields of study overlapping and intersecting one another in countless ways.  Biology influences psychology, mathematics relates to music, and history ties into sociology.  In our current cultural environment, all students regardless of their majors will be expected to engage in a variety of media and to participate in solving a broad range of cross-disciplinary problems creatively; they will need to have some understanding of how proposed solutions could be applied in today’s global economy.  Their semester-long project addresses this interdisciplinary idea, blending their chosen majors, creative problem-solving and applied business principles, ideas similar to those being practiced across the nation.[3]

 

Students define, research, and propose a solution to a problem, using art as a catalyst for change and applying sound business principles to successfully realize their art ideas.  Students determine how their art will work as opposed to making the artwork itself.  The problems they select relate to their chosen field of study.  For example, a nursing major might choose to address the shortage of nurses in America, while a biology major could address the problem of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay or an education major might seek solutions to bullying in schools.

 

Problem solving involves not only identifying the problem at hand, but also finding and addressing the additional questions that each problem raises.  Students naturally look for answers to questions they are given, but generally have a harder time identifying the questions that need to be asked.  Accounting and business majors (as a very broad general rule) tend to think in a linear pattern, while many artists tend to think in a spiral.  The combination strengthens both and shows the value of different yet complementary styles.  All students, in every field of study, benefit from applying both approaches to a given problem.  Creative problem-solving methods and tools are introduced and utilized.

 

In order for the student’s proposed art solutions to have an impact, they must be seen and engaged with.  While presenting in museums and galleries, on television or, e.g., on the streets of New York City may be too inspirational, students must consider the requirement of getting exposure, thus the business aspects of the course:  its management, its legal aspects, and simple accounting.  Students must not only develop an idea, but also propose a feasible strategy for gaining funding and exposure in their chosen market.  Here is where students can reflect on the importance of defining their audience, selling their ideas, and developing their business language skills to communicate with that market.  Basic business skills will help these students to budget, to market themselves, and to develop entrepreneurial abilities so that they can support their projects and see them through.  They must understand the limitations and possibilities inherent in applying solutions in a business environment.

           

Students choose a problem to solve working alone or in teams (preferably from various majors, combining, e.g., art, business and biology).  Drawing on their content knowledge and research, they work to develop solutions to these problems creatively.  Assignments include external research through field trips as well as library research.  Students define the problem, plan the process, outline it, catalogue findings, write a paper on the results, and present and explain their creative solutions.  A part of this presentation must include a fine arts component and a practical application in a business sense.  Students focus the paper considering a particular audience:  a foundation for funding, a business’s investment in a project, a non-profit’s budgetary feasibility, etc.

 

Art That Works

Harnessing the Power of Art helps students to develop an appreciation for the impact of art in a variety of manifestations and for a variety of purposes, to evolve their creative problem-solving skills, and to expand their knowledge of business.  By the end of the course, students are able to identify ways in which artists have harnessed the power of various art forms to address social, political, and cultural problems.  They understand themselves and others through exploring, in depth, a problem that is meaningful to them, while developing a feasible solution.  Students learn many approaches to problem solving, seeking to harness their own creativity and allowing them to imagine.  They expand their research capabilities and come to appreciate how a well-defined and well-researched problem will afford a greater choice of potential solutions. 

 

Harnessing the Power of Art

As we taught the class, we were excited to watch students perceive some practical applications of and for their talents.  Students had the opportunity to develop creative solutions to real-life problems.  They saw how the breadth of higher education could help them to take seemingly disparate ideas and understand how they fit together.  Today’s millennial learners are not the same as those in the last generation; students are more vocal consumers when it comes to their education.  Students have constant access to information through technology and become impatient with traditional lecture-only classroom teaching; however, they flourish with more engaging pedagogical strategies.[4] 

 

We feel that this course reached out to their new attitudes in many ways because we could teach them about art and about business while making it meaningful and relevant to them and in line with their interests.  Additionally, “Students who are involved in classes using collaborative teaching techniques improve their social and communication skills and develop skills of analysis and judgment.”[5]  For example, one team—comprised of a law and a business major—tackled the social problem of underage drinking through performance and documentary filmmaking.  A second team, with one art major and one pre-med student, created a non-profit foundation, which they called anXart, devoted to promoting art therapy as a practical alternative for the treatment of anxiety disorders.  A third team with paralegal, accounting and business communications majors, sought to promote ethical journalism through the establishment of a non-profit multimedia theatre troupe, whose target market consisted of middle schools in our state of Maryland.  The broad range of topics addressed and the art solutions that students proposed were consistent with our aspirations for the course and the students’ personal interests; however, we wanted to understand how the students perceived the outcome.  We asked one student who clearly grasped the content and objectives of the course to critique it more thoroughly than the standard evaluations.  Another part of our motivation in having her add to this article was because “Students will also learn how painstaking the task of writing can be when they serve as co-authors with faculty members….Students also learn that writing does not end when the paper is turned in to the professor; rather, their writing ends when the paper is accepted for publication or put to rest by the faculty member.”[6] Her comments indicate to us that, while not perfect, we are on the right track.

 

Student Response to Course 

What Worked? 

Real-world examples that were given for both topics, but more so the business examples, helped me remember key concepts. The examples brought home the ideas and showed how textbook themes relate to the real world in many different forms.  (This also helped me when I began to brainstorm for my own project – I was able to think outside of the box, for I learned from class how, for example, business ethics do not include just the rights and wrongs of CEOs.)

 

I thought the guest speakers were helpful – especially Peter Bruun [Director of Art on Purpose—one of the field trip speakers], because his projects were the first ones that had me thinking of smaller, different ways that art can impact the community, even if it’s just including the elderly in community art projects.  His lecture gave me insight into the many different audiences a single project can impact as well as good advice about fundraising techniques.

 

Observations, Suggestions and Critiques: 

I enjoyed Professor Hostalka’s PowerPoint slides that went along with her lectures, but I was also comfortable with Professor Ellis’s lecture format.  However, I think because I had some business background from other classes that I took in the fall, I could follow the business information better than some of my classmates.  Perhaps some handouts or worksheets for the business lectures would be helpful to some who are not as interested in the business aspects or who cannot grasp the concepts as easily.

 

Showing future students some examples of projects and/or sketchbooks would help them better grasp where the class is headed.  With our class being the first class ever, examples were not available; however, had they been available, I think everyone would be able to firmly grasp the concepts much earlier in the semester.

 

Quality and Quantity of Content and Assignments:

We may not need the art text if the concepts of design and fundamental art elements were introduced and discussed among ourselves in class.  Perhaps a fun “art” project could re-enforce the concepts, assess our understanding of them, and break up the lecture while stirring up our creativity needed for the brainstorming assignments that come later in the semester.

 

The sketchbook assignments were practical and creative at the same time.  I really think you should keep this facet of the course next time you teach it as a great creative outlet as well as a great place to refer to when studying for tests and preparing our project.  For some reason, in the beginning, the word “sketchbook” which I attributed to “art” kept hanging me up and it wasn’t until after the first grading of the sketchbook that I felt more comfortable with the content I was including in the sketchbook.  I thought adequate time was given to complete the sketchbook assignments.

 

I felt like some of the business concepts weren’t as important as others. For example, business ethics and social responsibility were most intimately related to the overall goals of the course and the projects, while the specifics of accounting and law were not as pertinent.  Leadership topics and teamwork sections were helpful.

 

In closing, I hope that my comments are helpful; they are a mix of my own thoughts and the comments that I heard other students make.  In the end, I do think that you accomplished what you set out to do.  I think the overarching project blends art and business well and encourages students to “think outside of the box.”  Encouraging them to solve a current social issue is important, too, for it tunes them into the world and makes them more aware of the issues at hand.  Reiterating that the artistic solution is not meant to change the world, per se, nor necessarily come in the form of art galleries and paintings will remind the students to continue to think at a more abstract level.

 

Personally, I entered the class ignorant of the many forms art AND business can take and the class showed me how to see the art and business in nearly every aspect of life. Thanks for opening my eyes and teaching me to look at things in different lights. I certainly took a lot away from your class and I think, with a few adjustments, many students will be taking away the same lessons I learned.

 

Analysis

When the course ended, we considered our own reactions as well as those of the students.   In response to our own observations, the course evaluations and Ms. Bory’s comments, we drew several conclusions:

 

Overall, the course was successful and met our objectives.  Students redefined art, learned that business concepts could be used for more than making money, improved social awareness, practiced abstract thinking and were clearly challenged.  Students also developed their research skills as they worked on their projects, which in turn enabled them to draw a correlation between their individual majors and society. 

 

We will make a few changes, such as to increase the number of real world experiences through additional field trips.  Initially, we had thought that because the students were not art or business majors that we had to give more lectures on each topic until they knew enough to make viable judgments; now we realize that this approach reinforced their dissociation rather than their connection.

 

While the two texts are used only partially, they are both needed for students’ reference.  On the other hand, we plan to use four case studies to demonstrate the integrated idea of the course from the beginning.  Using the AIDS quilt, for example, as one case study, students could research and discuss its art aspects and the creativity used to design the squares, the fund raising required to move it around the country, the leaders who controlled the process from start to finish, and the influence it has had on the artists and the communities, as well as its political and social justice implications.

 

We discovered that team teaching such an interdisciplinary course was more difficult than we had anticipated, but led to greater rewards at its conclusion.  We found as did Letterman and Dugan, that “collaborative or team teaching can engage professors in more philosophical discussions than the usual discourse over class materials” [7].  This seemed especially true since our disciplines are so disparate, and this experience enhanced our own teaching styles as we learned from each other.

 

Finally, while we knew what we wanted to achieve, getting those thoughts across to the students was quite a challenge:  encouraging them to ask questions and see connections required careful shepherding and consistent focus on the outcomes.  Students had to develop their critical thinking skills and challenge their basic assumptions about art and business and the roles they can play in society.  In the end, the students were able to realize the benefits of looking deeper into their subjects.  The projects and presentations reflected their success and gave us our own sense of accomplishment.

 

Notes

 

1]Barisonzi, Judith, and Michael Thorn. "Teaching Revolution: Issues in Interdisciplinary Education." College Teaching 51.1 (Winter 2003): 5-8.  Letterman, Margaret R., and Kimberly B. Dugan. "Team Teaching a Cross-Disciplinary Honors Course." College Teaching 52.2 (Spring 2004): 76-79.

[2]Barisonzi, Judith, and Michael Thorn. "Teaching Revolution: Issues in Interdisciplinary Education." College Teaching 51.1 (Winter 2003): 5-8. 

[3]Letterman, Margaret R., and Kimberly B. Dugan. "Team Teaching a Cross-Disciplinary Honors Course." College Teaching 52.2 (Spring 2004): 76-79.

[4]McGuire, Saundra Y. "The Millennial Learner: Challenges and Opportunities. Villa Julie College. Stevenson, MD. 24 Aug. 2005. Vita of Saundra Y. McGuire. Lousiana State U Dept. of Chemistry. 13 Sept. 2007.  http://chemistry.lsu.edu/chem/facultypages/Faculty.php?chemID=76.

[5]Letterman, Margaret R., and Kimberly B. Dugan. "Team Teaching a Cross-Disciplinary Honors Course." College Teaching 52.2 (Spring 2004): 76-79,  cf Harris, S. A., and K. J. Watson.  1997.   Small Group Techniques:  Selecting and Developing Activities Based on Stages of Group Development.  To Improve the Academy. 16:399-412.

[6]Payne, B. K. and E. Monk-Turner. “Benefits of Writing with Students.”  Academic Exchange Quarterly. 9:1 (2005): 282.

[7] Letterman, Margaret R., and Kimberly B. Dugan. "Team Teaching a Cross-Disciplinary Honors Course." College Teaching 52.2 (Spring 2004): 76-79.